African Music's Dream Factory

Paris, 17 January 2002 - After making his name as a trendy punk-rock record store owner in Lyons in the early 80s, Philippe Berthier flew out to Mali to begin a new life in Bamako. Now, eighteen years later, the enterprising Frenchman runs MaliK7, the country's sole cassette production company. He also co-owns a recording studio with world music star Ali Farka Touré. Working in close collaboration with French arranger Yves Wernert (a former bass-player from Nancy), Berthier has helped launch the careers of a number of leading "Afro-electro" stars such as Issa Bagayogo - better known as "Techno Issa" in Mali!

Following Berthier's instructions, we make our way up a dirt track, turn "just past the tarmac and the Shell service station" and finally come upon a small blue-and-yellow sign pointing the way to MaliK7, the country's one and only cassette factory. Entering the premises we find a small and modest structure - no sign of spanking new offices, piles of stock or stacks of promotional gifts. Just one ordinary-looking building housing the cassette pressing machines, the sleeve-printer, offices, the in-house shop and the reception area. Welcome to MaliK7, the record company responsible for catapulting Ali Farka Touré, Lobi Traoré and Neba Solo to fame!

Listening to a battered old radio set crackle out the latest Alpha Blondy hit, MaliK7's receptionist sits beneath an Oumou Sangare poster, singing along as she cuts out cassette sleeves from a long roll. With MaliK7's albums retailing at 850 CFA (8.5 francs or 1.30 euros) - prices haven't changed since 1992 despite the deflation of the CFA and the soaring prices of raw materials - the company's fifteen employees are used to doing several jobs at once!

Meanwhile, a catchy mix of Afro-electro groove drifts from the studio across the road, where Ali Farka Touré's guitarist, Moussa Koné, is rehearsing with Issa Bagayogo. When Philippe Berthier set up Studio Bogolan in 1988 it was the first multi-track recording studio in Mali, but over the last fifteen years the French entrepreneur has seen huge changes in the country's music industry. These days Mali boasts several recording studios, a host of local and foreign producers and a music copyright office affiliated to the French organisation SACEM. However, there's still no sign of any state subsidies for musical production!

While MaliK7 only produces six or seven albums a year, the company assures the distribution of local Mali talent (some twenty new albums a month) as well as international stars such as Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. RFI/Musique met up with MaliK7's director, Philippe Berthier, and stepped behind the scenes at the tiny 15-employee company which presses the dreams of thousands of Malian music fans:

RFI/Musique: So, Philippe, let's begin by asking how someone born and brought up in Lyon ends up running a cassette production company in Mali?
Philippe Berthier: Well, I came to Mali completely by chance in 1982 to see friends of mine out here. I had a brilliant time and when I went back to Lyons, where I had my own record shops specialising in punk and rock, I basically got the blues. In fact, I missed Africa so much I decided I wanted to come out and live here. So I drove across Europe and North Africa and, after spending three months in Algeria, arrived in Bamako in January 1985. I started off working for a big French company, but I already had this idea at the back of my mind that I wanted to set up my own structure. Anyway, after that I went out to work in Zaire for a while, then I flew back to France to buy all the necessary recording equipment to set up my own studio. By the end of '88, I'd opened Mali's first multi-track recording studio in Bamako. Before I created my studio, local musicians had only been able to work in a double-track studio belonging to ORTM (Mali's national radio station).
Once I'd set up the studio I realised we also needed to create a company to oversee the production of cassettes. The only thing you could get your hands on on the record market in Mali were pirate cassettes from abroad. So one year later I went on to set up "Ou Bien Productions". And in 1992 we struck a deal with EMI, which already had subsidiaries in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast… Anyway, to cut a long story short, EMI totally pulled out of Africa in 1995 (only keeping a base in South Africa). And it was then that I went into business with Ali Farka Touré. He'd just won a Grammy Award and we set up "MaliK7" together.

Your biggest problem to date has been cassette 'pirating'. In fact, I believe at one point you almost closed down because of it?
At the end of '99 we got to the point where we had to close MaliK7 for six weeks. We had to lay employees off because there wasn't any work coming in. But the situation soon turned into a national scandal! I went on the TV news to talk about the problem and Malian singers and musicians marched through the streets and even went to see the Prime Minister! Finally, a national debate was organised with producers, musicians, customs officers and the police coming together to discuss the issue. Of course, we didn't manage to solve all the problems at one debate, but the crisis certainly raised public awareness about 'pirating'.
Things have improved somewhat over the last year though, because customs officers have started imposing strict rules on all merchandise entering the country. And that's gone some way towards reducing the number of 'pirate' cassettes crossing the borders. We even managed to catch one major cassette pirated and brought a court case against him with 15 local artists. We actually won the case but it's currently undergoing appeal.

Have you noticed any major changes on the Malian music scene since you arrived?
Mali is a country with a lot of different artists playing a lot of different styles. There's a huge difference between the music scene in the north and the south of the country, for instance, between music played by different tribes like the Tamachek, the Wassoulou, the Mandingue, the Dogon and the Peuls. Music from the north of Mali sells better outside the country than it does at home, but there are a lot of different styles which have yet to be discovered abroad.
When I first arrived in Mali there was a big trend for traditional music played by griots. But this style is no longer representative of the majority of releases on the national music scene. There've been a lot of changes on the music scene in general, with the arrival of new styles like hip hop and artists like Issa Bagayogo and Nahawa Doumbia experimenting with electro fusion sounds. More and more artists are looking to do something new and innovative these days. And I think that's partly down to us. We helped move things on a bit by opening our studio and we've introduced people to new styles.

With such a hotbed of musical talent at your disposal, how do you go about deciding which artists you want to produce?
Well, we actually distribute records by hundreds of artists, but we only produce around ten or so per year ourselves. We obviously focus on promoting original talents, but we're interested in working with anyone who's capable of coming up with a new sound and opening themselves to new horizons. At the moment we've got a young Dogon singer by the name of Dene Issebere and she's great - she really touches on a wide variety of different styles. One of the pet projects I'd like to work on right now, in fact, would be to develop a modern form of traditional Dogon music.

Is it easy to promote your artists in Mali?
Well, it's definitely a lot easier here than in France because Mali's only got one TV station and there are only a handful of radios, so everyone knows each other really. In fact, TV and radio producers tend to get in touch with us more often that the other way round, because they're always on the lookout for new music. So it's generally fairly easy to get one of our artists on radio and TV or in the national press. The thing that's a lot more complicated for us, though, is helping Malian artists develop an international career. That's one of the reasons that, thanks to the "Agence Internationale de la Francophonie", I attend the MIDEM festival every year. It's thanks to my visits to MIDEM that I've been able to get some of our acts included on compilation albums abroad. One of my biggest successes to date was getting Issa Bagayogo an international contract with the American label Six Degrees.

What are your best-selling acts in Mali right now?
Well, last year we sold around 900,000 cassettes overall. And the artist who proved to be our best-seller was Oumou Sangare (who sold over 100,000 copies of his latest album, making this the biggest seller of all time in Mali!) We also had best-selling cassette albums from Ramata Diakité (80,000 copies) and Mah Kouyaté (80,000 copies), the female griot who's causing such a stir right now.

Where do you sell your cassettes?
Our cassettes are mainly sold in the 'informal sector', by that I mean S in small shops and local market stalls. But Bamako recently got its first real record store. It's called "Musicland" and it's right in the centre of town. It stocks all sorts of erotic records and cassettes. In fact, it's the only place in Mali where you'll find the Beatles alongside Amy Koita! "Musicland" has got a good stock of CDs, too. Interestingly enough, sales of CDs are on the up in Mali right now … The only problem is, they're often 'pirated' like cassettes!

Interview: Elodie Maillot
Translation: Julie Street

You can find the Best of the Malian Music on RFI-Musique's compilation on the website of TV5 .